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Tom Harkin takes aim at the filibuster

harkenbuster.JPGFinally, a post that's only tangentially about Joe Lieberman! In 1995, Sen. Tom Harkin joined with Sen. Joe Lieberman to end the modern filibuster. Lieberman and Harkin proposed a modification that would preserve the filibuster's protection of lengthy debate but destroy its evolution into a de facto supermajority requirement. Lieberman, of course, is now America's most prominent beneficiary of the filibuster. But Harkin is revisiting his old idea.

"I think, if anything, this health care debate is showing the dangers of unlimited filibuster," Harkin told reporters on Thursday. "I think there's a reason for slowing things down ... and getting the public aware of what's happening and maybe even to change public sentiment, but not to just absolutely stop something."

The plan he announced with Lieberman 14 years ago would have slowly scaled down the cloture threshold for legislation that had been filibustered. The first vote would require 60. If it failed to reach 60, debate would continue until a new vote, which would require 57, and so on until a simple majority could determine whether the measure lived or died.

"You could hold something up for maybe a month, but then, finally you'd come down to 51 votes and a majority would be able to pass," Harkin said. "I may revive that. I pushed it very hard at one time and then things kind of got a little better."

There's some evidence for that last line. Procedural reform rarely works, but attempts at procedural reform occasionally have the desired affect anyway. FDR's court-packing scheme, for instance, was turned back, but the Supreme Court stopped torching every element of the New Deal that came before the bench. Bill Frist's effort to end the filibuster on judicial nominees was similarly unsuccessful, but it was very successful at convincing Democrats to let more judicial nominees through.

Photo credit: By Joshua Roberts/Reuters

By Ezra Klein  |  December 14, 2009; 4:08 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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Next: The unintended consequences of reconciliation


"I pushed it very hard at one time and then things kind of got a little better."

In the immortal words of Salt 'n' Pepa, Tom Harkin, "push it....push it real good...."

Posted by: Jenn2 | December 14, 2009 4:14 PM | Report abuse

Things not good now...Why aren't dems pubicly
calling out holy joe for being against what he was for 3 months (medicare option) ago or 14 years ago (limited filibuster). The comity of the senate time is over. HCR now!

Posted by: srw3 | December 14, 2009 4:23 PM | Report abuse


I think your New Deal argument is actually backwards.

The "Switch in Time That Saved Nine" is largely a myth. The Justices cast their votes before Roosevelt announced the court packing plan, and Justice Roberts changed his votes from earlier cases for procedural reasons (the government hadn't briefed overruling a prior case).

On a more general level - a large part of why the Second New Deal survived is that Roosevelt confined himself to what the Supreme Court wanted. The First New Deal had some terrible components (i.e., delegating lawmaking authority to industry trade groups). But in the intervening years, the Democrats (1) got a better hold on policy, and (2) crafted those policies to fit within the Supreme Court's tests.

Posted by: jesmont | December 14, 2009 4:48 PM | Report abuse

Impeach Liebermann.

The GOP didn't need a good reason to impeach Clinton or recall Gray Davis.

Over 100,000 Americans dead each year due to a lack of health insurance is a great reason to impeach a man who plays politics with those lives.

Posted by: Lomillialor | December 14, 2009 4:50 PM | Report abuse

It's a little late, Tom.

Posted by: cmpnwtr | December 14, 2009 4:56 PM | Report abuse

Changing Senate rules is a big lift because it may require 67 votes.

But one possibility is to have the new rules take effect sometime down the road when neither of today's parties knows who will be in control. That Rawlsian "veil of ignorance" helps reduce the self-interest that blocks procedural reform.

A proposal that reduced the influence of the filibuster or eliminated it entirely would have a greater chance of passing if its effective date were, say, 2017 rather than this congressional session or the next. It won't help immediately, but it may be the best way to get it done eventually, which is far better than not getting it done at all.

Further discussion at:

Posted by: dasimon | December 14, 2009 5:52 PM | Report abuse

Are you saying that a video of a chimpanzee making friends with a dog is more than tangentially about Joe Lieberman? If so, you may need to re-read the section of the WaPo's employee manual dealing with journalistic neutrality ...

Posted by: FearItself | December 14, 2009 6:11 PM | Report abuse

Ezra Klein is wrong about judicial confirmations during the Bush years -- only a tiny number were confirmed as a result of the Gang of 14 discussions.

Ezra Klein is also wrong about Tom Harkin, who is one of the worst partisan hacks in the Senate and a man not to be trusted.

Posted by: JBaustian | December 16, 2009 9:57 AM | Report abuse

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